Melanie Mowery baking in her kitchen

Strength Through Baking

MyPanera member Melanie Mowery shares how baking helps her maintain a winning attitude, no matter what the outcome of the contests she enters.

Though Melanie Mowery, of Suwanee, Georgia, won the first baking contest she ever entered, she admits that her earlier concoctions weren’t exactly masterpieces. “My first attempt at baking was not my greatest,” she says. “It was a key lime pie, and when I took it in to work, it was not warmly received!

But Melanie—a self-proclaimed perfectionist—took the response as a personal challenge. “I thought, If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to get it right,” she says. Through much trial and error, Melanie overcame those early baking demons, as well as a less-than-stellar baking-show audition and a much bigger battle with cancer, to become the confident and determined baker that she is today.

On her first big success: “About 10 years ago, I baked a batch of triple chocolate chunk cookies for a family reunion. Everyone fell in love with them. They were literally eating the crumbs out of the bag. That’s when I thought, I could really make a go of this.”

On her first baking contest: “Every Thanksgiving, my workplace holds a baking competition. One year I entered and won with Lillian’s Coconut Cake — named after my mom, Lillian. It’s her basic recipe with my own flair added. Even a staff member who hated coconut cake loved it.”

On baking her way through cancer: “After being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010, I actually baked for my doctors while I was going through six months of chemo. I wanted to be normal, and baking was what made me feel that way. It kept me sane. I finished treatment in July 2011 and got married in October of that same year. I nominated my husband for the Caregiver of the Year Award from the American Cancer Society because he took me to every treatment. He won! He also helped me carry cupcakes on my last day of chemo.”

On researching new recipe ideas: “I do most of my research online, but I’ll usually look at bloggers’ techniques, not their recipes.”

On her brief brush with reality TV: “Last winter, my son-in-law encouraged me to audition for a show that was looking for amateur bakers. I thought, I bet everyone is going to show up with cakes and pies, but I’m going to make something different, so I made Garlic Pull-Apart Bread. It’s gooey, cheesy biscuit dough with lots of garlic and butter and baked in a Bundt pan. When I got to the competition, I realized I’d shown up to a gunfight with a knife. It took me only two seconds to ‘plate’ my bread, and the judge didn’t even taste it. I just wanted to go into a corner and hide.”

On her comeback: “After the audition, I decided I needed to up my game…get my mojo back. To me a true baker is someone who’s always trying to do something new and terrific. Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta is doing a baking contest in March to benefit Share Our Strength, a group dedicated to ending childhood hunger. It’s called Share Our Strength’s Great American Baking Contest Atlanta. They have an amateur division, and I’ve decided I’m going to go in with a very gorgeous cake and redeem myself!”

On her favorite Panera Bread baked goods: “I love the Pastry Ring—it’s one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen, and it’s delicious. I also love Panera for their Pink Ribbon Bagels in October. My husband buys dozens and dozens of bagels to support the cause.”